Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The state of humanity - and journalism

I love my job. I love the people I work with. I love being in the thick of things and I love the ability to shape the world - even if only my very small corner of it.

But sometimes I despise my profession.

Monday night as I sat in the newsroom at the Lockport Journal sifting through stories about the Boston Marathon bombings and trying to find photos to epitomize the stories, I went from being upset about the bombing itself to being upset about humanity - and I don't mean upset about whatever dickwad would blow up innocents. And I don't mean upset about the fact that humanity would create such a massive douchebag.

Voyeurism is not cool. And our voyeuristic nature is sometimes absolutely repulsive.

I have a constant internal struggle with the news. I talked to my boss about it just yesterday. While he reminded me that we can be a tool for good, sometimes I'm simply reminded that we can be a tool.

Several years ago, the paper I work at now - and worked at at the time - printed a front page photo of a girl in war-torn Iraq. She was crouched down in the dirt, surrounded by destruction. Crying. It was an incredibly moving photo. Touching. It spoke more than 10,000 words could. I could feel her pain. Her suffering. In short, it was a great photo.

And I hated it.

Not only did I hate it, I was angry that it was used. Even more upset that it was used so prominently on our front page. Surely others would react like me and have an emotional reaction to the photo. Maybe it would inspire some people to buy the paper that day. And in doing so, it would increase our profit.

When we have compelling photos of accidents and fires taken by one of our freelance photographers, they undoubtedly land on the front page. 1) They're better in color. And 2) They lead to increased sales. People want to know the details of the fire or accident. I want to think it's out of concern for victims. I fear it's sheer voyeurism, though. But long story short, accident photos and fires lead to higher sales. Higher profits.

This is specifically what I talked to my boss about. The business end of tragedy. I hate the thought that my paycheck is derived - even in part - from the fact that someone got injured ... or lost their home. I hate profiting off tragedy.

What I hate even more, though, is the ugly part in humanity that leads to it. I hate the fact that we want to see these things. I wish that death and destruction sickened us - as a whole. I wish our reaction to these things was negative. I wish it led to less papers being sold. Not more.

My boss reminded me that because of the position that we have, we're able to turn these tragedies around. Print the house fire photos and then follow up with stories about ways to help the family. Print accident photos and follow up with reminders not to drink and drive or text and drive ... or whatever. Take the tragic event and publicize it as the first act in a play designed to make the world a better place.

He was right. But I'm still uneasy about it.

Back to Monday night.

As I'm scrolling through photos on the Associated Press newswire, looking for the perfect shot to accompany our front page story about the bombings, I was frustrated. Most of the photos were gruesome. They were images of people injured. Some being tended to by medical personnel. Some being wheeled away. Some just lying in the street.

One photo in particular angered me. It was a photo of a man being wheeled away from the accident scene, bloodied and battered and appearing to be missing a part of his right leg. Paraphrasing the caption that went with the photo, it said, "A man is wheeled away from the scene ..."

The photographer didn't even get his name. I was livid. I had no idea whether this guy was okay. And no way to find out. For all I knew, he was one of the three who didn't make it. And here's a photo of him to use as though he's a prop in a major motion picture. Completely dehumanized. He's just profit in a wheelchair ... "oh, and sorry about your leg."

I looked through photos for a good ten minutes - longer than usual. I wanted to find a photo that showed the scene - explained the chaos - without depicting any one person's pain. In the end, I went with a photo that I think captured that ... along with a smaller shot of a man holding his wife. I felt it was tasteful. And it allowed me to sleep last night.

Yes, something so simple as what photo runs on the cover of my paper can have a huge impact on whether I can sleep at night - literally. I take these things personally. And those who know me will tell you that I'm a very emotional person ... some might say overly emotional.

I cry during movies. I get upset at the news. I have fights with inanimate objects. (I usually win ... but not always). I believe that I "feel" deeper than most people. I think it's a curse. Others have found it endearing at times.

The TV news upset me last night, too. Same basic principle. Showing the explosions over and over from different camera angles. Interviewing people who are injured and clearly should not have a microphone stuck in their face. Round table discussions with "experts" who clearly have no idea what they're talking about. I know it's our job to bring you the news ... but when the news is tragic, do we have to be so damn glib - or worse happy - about it?